This article was published in 2004, in Newsletter 53.

Riding a bike puts us in a social group. It may not be our defining characteristic, any more than any of the other characteristics we carry around with us, but for the duration of our journeys (and when the active campaigners among us are representing people cycling) we are identified as ‘different’.

We – this social group – are on the receiving end of quite a lot of hostility and prejudice on the road, as many of us would agree. Hostility ranges from negative attitudes, through verbal abuse, to intimidation, assault and, in a few rare cases, deliberate killing1. The faults of some cyclists are often attributed to all cyclists. Simply being on the road is often perceived as a fault, especially in difficult situations. We are accused of getting in the way of professional drivers’ livelihoods. Some drivers use aggressive words like ‘hate’ about us, though for many others we are invisible.

These characteristics remind me of racism. It would be hard to assert that ‘cyclism’ – let’s call it – is as serious as racism, yet there seem to be common elements. Nationally we’re a smaller minority than many ethnic minorities, though that’s not the case in Cambridge. A pyramid of hostile acts directed at us, from a small number of deliberate assaults to a much larger general discontent, seems to be similar in nature to the experience of racism. The biggest difference is, of course, that cyclists can turn the effect off. Once away from the road, we need no longer be labelled ‘cyclist’.

In-group and out-group

This similarity should come as no great surprise because racism and cyclism can both be seen, along with other ‘ism’s, as manifestations of Tajfel’s and Turner’s social identity theory2. This describes how attitudes about other people are based on whether they belong to one’s own group (the in-group) or are outside it (the out-group).

Numerous experiments have been conducted which show that group labels affect people’s perceptions, even when the labels are quite artificial. Intergroup bias3 is a systematic tendency to evaluate one’s own membership group (the ‘in-group’) or its members more favourably than a non-membership group (the ‘out-group’). Bias includes behaviour (discrimination: ‘cyclists shouldn’t be allowed on the road because they slow me down’), attitude (prejudice: ‘why should the council spend money on cyclists when they don’t pay tax and don’t have to have insurance’) and cognition (stereotyping: ‘you cyclists are all the same, always jumping red lights and never having lights’).

Tajfael and Turner say that intergroup bias creates or protects in-group status leading to positive social identity for in-group members, thereby satisfying their need for positive self esteem. Factors such as group-identifying characteristics (mode of transport, skin colour, sexuality, even simple labels), group size, status and power (majority versus minority), the extent to which members feel threatened (livelihood, physical danger), the way in which one rates members of another group (particularly whether this is done on a negative or positive scale) and, maybe, personality or predisposition to bias, are all cited as influencing intergroup bias.

Social theory talks about ‘implicit measures’, where bias is automatically activated by the mere presence of the attitude object (does that sound familiar?). Faster responses to negative traits in an out-group and to positive traits in an in-group are commonplace.

Of course, it works both ways. When or if we classify ourselves as cyclists, our point of view is from the ‘cyclist in-group’. We should consider our own attitudes as well as those of drivers.

Cycling specific research

‘Without prompting, cyclists don’t feature much on the drivers’ radar at all’
Image as described adjacent

Basford et al., at the Transport Research Laboratory have published a report4 which considers how some of this theory applies to what I have called cyclism. Their observations match some of the subjective feelings we have about the intergroup bias between motorists and cyclists. But in one key area they diverge, namely, that motorists are not concerned much with cyclists at all. When their attention is drawn to us, we become a minor irritant on their radar, but without prompting, we don’t feature much on the non-cyclist drivers’ (the majority) radar at all.

I guess this is like the late bus syndrome – OK, I invented it, but it sounds good – if the bus you are trying to catch is late it is 100% late from your point of view even if the track record says only 3% of buses are ever late (if only!). It may be different in Cambridge where cyclists are a much larger minority than in, say, Hull where some of the TRL research was done.

The TRL research found that when cyclists do feature in drivers’ thoughts, attitudes were largely negative. HGV and bus driver attitudes were especially negative, related to the perception of being held up by cyclists. Unpredictability and just ‘different’ behaviour were seen to be particular sources of irritation to motorists when their own convenience is compromised.

Where the context caused a driver to slow down or deviate, cyclists were often seen as discourteous or in the wrong, whatever their actual behaviour, a finding that strikes a very strong chord for me.

Both the general social theory and specific driver-cyclist interaction are very interesting to read about, but I did find it tended to engender fatalism. ‘This is how people work’ comes frighteningly close to saying that there isn’t anything you can do about it. On the other hand, understanding behaviour perhaps gives us clues to the most effective remedies.


TRL’s recommendations were largely practical, and focused on not allowing situations to arise where negativity towards the ‘out-group’ of cyclists could arise. For example, they recommend road designs which don’t bring the user groups into proximity, and most emphatically, cyclists should not be used as a traffic calming measure. Given the particular conclusions about bus drivers in the report, we should consider the implications for the increasing mixing of cyclists and buses.

They also recommend more training, education and enforcement. Further research is identified: do regional variations (Cambridge as an example of prominent cycling perhaps) engender differences in the driver-cyclist relationship; and do drivers’ negative perceptions translate into negative behaviour? Subjectively it certainly feels that way.

One aspect that would be very interesting to consider isn’t touched on in this research at all. Given that cyclists are a voluntary social group, to what extent is membership influenced by the negativity shown towards its membership? Why would someone voluntarily join an ‘out-group’ which they have learned to either ignore or view with hostility and negativity, whatever the reality of the situation?

David Earl

  1. For example see
  2. Tajfel & Turner, 1979: An integrative theory of intergroup conflict in The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations ed. Austin & Worchel. Brooks/Cole, Monterey.
  3. Hewstone, Rubin and Willis, 2002, Annual Review of Psychology (
  4. Basford, Reid, Lester, Thomson and Tolmie, 2002, Drivers’ perceptions of cyclists, TRL Report TRL549, Transport Research Laboratory (